If you don’t like thinking for yourself, don’t read this post. If you prefer playing around on your mobile device or smartphone, don’t bother reading further. The phone is definitely smarter than you are if you have relinquished your own memory and thinking-ability to its functionality. But if you would like to know something more about the kind of technocratic culture we inhabit, read further.
“Technocratic” means literally “the rule of technology”, and as Heidegger argued in his forceful essay, The Question Concerning Technology (freely downloadable), our era is marked by precisely such technocracy. It assumes many guises, of course, and although Heidegger was thinking of “dirty” industrial technology, like factories spewing black smoke into a once pristine atmosphere, what may seem, at first sight, to be the innocuous and “clean” technology of computers, IPads and smartphones, turns out, on closer inspection, to be far less so than one may think.
Some years ago I listened to a keynote address at a communications theory conference in Dublin, Ireland, presented by Professor Richard Maxwell, of Queens College, New York. He disabused his audience deftly of the prejudice, that the laptops and smartphones we use are “clean” technology. The materials and industrial processes that are involved in manufacturing these, he pointed out, amount to the equivalent of 800000 cars’ carbon emissions per annum. Quite an eye-opener.
But this “materialist” perspective is not the only one to reveal a downside to our precious communications technology. Arguably, the social effects it has on human lives are even more deleterious. Granted, and as I have pointed out many times before, technology is a “pharmakon” – poison AND cure – so I don’t dispute its usefulness as a tool; in fact, without my laptop I could not write this blog-post, nor write up my research for academic journals or books. But most people are simply blind to its poisonous character, which has to be kept firmly in mind if one wishes to live a fairly “balanced” life.
This poisonous aspect of communications technology, or broadly, “connectivity”, is thematised in Henry Alex Rubin’s critically acclaimed film, “Disconnect” (2012). The film’s title can be read as both a descriptive term pertaining to the almost pathological situation of connectivity overload among people in a so-called connected world, AND an implicit (converse) imperative, to “re-connect” with the people you love, but in the primordial human way, WITHOUT technical mediation.
The film follows three narrative threads, all of which spring from our networked society’s frenetic (over-)use of connectedness through the internet, in the form of internet sex, internet-based cyber-crime and mobile phone (mis-)communication and bullying. The narrative stresses the ubiquity of the painful experiences it traces by “connecting” the three threads through characters central to each of them interacting with those from other threads at different times.
The first parallel storyline involves the attempt, on the part of a female television journalist (Nina Dunham), to persuade a “cam-boy” stripper (Kyle) to give her an anonymous interview, to be broadcast on television, of the “work” he and his co-workers do. They are male and female underage teenagers living in a house together, run by an adult, who makes money out of their audio-visual, virtual reality sex-performance for paying clients. They are called “cam-girls” and “cam-boys” because they perform in front of a camera mounted in their laptops, by dancing nude or masturbating for the vicarious pleasure of their male and female online clients.
Nina finally gets her interview, and when CNN notices it being broadcast on her local TV-channel, they “take it national” (and international), which, in turn, attracts the attention of other authorities, like social welfare departments and the FBI. Having won Kyle’s trust, she is at first hesitant to reveal the address of the online teen-porn house, but when her job is threatened because of Kyle’s unexpected visit to her apartment, she relents, leading to the wholesale flight of the teenagers (including Kyle) from the house in their “handler’s” van when he gets a tip-off. Wracked with guilt, Nina traces them after a phone-call to Kyle, but their meeting ends badly, with Kyle assuring her angrily that he was not being exploited, and that he liked what he did for a living; instead, she was the one who exploited him, he claims. This part of the story ends inconclusively, with Nina driving home in tears – a remorseful, but wiser young woman.
The second of the three narrative lines, which unfold in tandem, with the camera switching back and forth among them, concerns the mischief perpetrated by two school friends, Jason and Frye. They are shown filling empty energy-drink bottles with their own urine and replacing them on the shelf, delighting in the misfortune of the people who buy and drink from them. At their school they target an unsuspecting, introvert classmate, Ben Boyd, by sending him text-messages ostensibly coming from a girl named Jessica Rhony. Intrigued and flattered by her apparent interest in the songs he writes, Ben responds positively, and eventually receives a provocative picture showing a girl exposing her pubic area, with the words, “Wild thing” written in lipstick on her stomach.
Later he receives another message apologising for the “pic”, because he obviously does not feel that way. Challenged, Ben sends a nude picture, lipstick message and exposed penis and all, back to “Jessica”, who promptly circulates it among virtually all the kids in their grade, with predictable results. When Ben peers over someone’s shoulder to see what is causing all the merriment at his cost, his shock is predictable. He goes home and after typing the chatroom message, “Why?”, hangs himself. His sister discovers him before he dies, but when they get him to hospital he is in a coma. Ben’s father, who is the lawyer for the television station where Nina works, leaves no stone unturned to track down his son’s cyber-bullies by sifting through all the messages on his son’s laptop, and actually “chatting” to “Jessica”. This part of the story also ends inconclusively, with Ben’s father confronting Jason and his father, a detective who has among his clients the couple whose lives are explored in the third of the parallel narratives.
In this part of the film one witnesses a couple, Derek and Cindy, struggling to make sense of their lives after the death of their young child. Cindy starts chatting online with a pseudonymous character called “Fear and Loathing”, who offers her some solace by sharing with her the supposed grief that followed the death of his wife. When all their money is stolen out of their online bank account they are devastated, and employ Mike (Jason’s father) to trace the thief. His investigation leads to the person behind the character, “Fear and Loathing”, with whom Cindy had chatted online, explaining that she had unwittingly given away her online banking password, which is partly the same as her online name.
Having received their suspect’s address from Mike, Derek and Cindy start following him, with Derek talking to him at his dry-cleaning business and the two of them burgling his house to look for incriminating documents. However, just before the inevitable showdown comes (where a shooting is narrowly avoided), Mike phones them to say that he was wrong about the thief’s identity. The painful experience has the effect, at least, to bring Cindy and Derek closer again, having learned the hard way about the dangers accompanying an electronically “connected” way of living.
I have unavoidably omitted many of the details of these three narratives, but the gist is there. It is not surprising that it has won several awards; as a sober-minded, unsensational, very well filmed account of the dangers of being “connected”, I can recommend it highly. To any person capable of critical self-reflection, it will come as a cautionary tale, prompting him or her to re-examine their relationship with the internet and its many pitfalls. (I apologise if this post would spoil the film for anyone who wants to see it after reading this, but the value of viewing the film is not vitiated by knowing more or less what to expect.)